“Once upon a time….”
There was a princess and her name was Pearl. She was a very strong and talented girl. She spent her childhood running half-clothed through forests and over moors, swimming in the lagoon below her father’s castle, and climbing crags and trees. When she was eight years old, she became a page to two different knights, both her cousins, and spent time at her uncle’s chalet where she exercised to develop her muscles, rode horses, and learned to fight with sword and spear. When she returned to the king’s seat, she apprenticed herself to a local blacksmith for a year to learn the smithy arts, and increase her upper body strength.
By the time she was seventeen, she had grown into a tall and powerful beauty with ample curves and arms that could both forge and wield a broad-sword. Her long, shiny black hair was like a curtain of the night and her silver-grey eyes like stars. She was accorded knighthood at age eighteen by the king, her father, who had special armor made just for her, the metal of which was heated to a deep purple that was almost black, and covered by designs of stars, horns, flowers, and leaves applied by enameling and cloisonne in colors of lavender, violet, gray, and white.
When Pearl was not in training to fight or hammer metal, she excelled in singing, dancing, reading and writing. And interior design; the princess was known throughout the kingdom for her excellent taste and sense of color and proportion. She supervised the redecoration of every chamber in the castle, and that was over two-hundred rooms, while she was still a squire. Many times servants reported catching a glimpse of her flitting down corridors with her parchment plans and bolts of fabric, amethyst- and diamond-studded lavender silk-chiffon skirts billowing behind her.
“That was really too much.”
“Envy, envy, sister, because your princesses are such willowy, fainting things….”
One day, just prior to her twentieth year, Pearl was summoned to the throne room. When she arrived, she saw her father and uncles and the Duke of Abemarle with several of his knights and advisers, standing about, their hands clasped behind the backs of their sumptuous, velvet robes. She was attired in a short, cambric tunic over loose trousers, her hair pulled straight back, as she’d just come from working her horses. Her face was flush and smudged with dirt. Upon the sight of her, her father beamed, but the other men frowned.
“Welcome, my only child, Princess Pearl,” her father called to her. “We have a situation.”
She went to one knee and bowed her head briefly. “Greetings your highness, my beloved sire,” she said, then rose gracefully to her feet.
“Your betrothed, the son of Duke Abemarle, Lord Petrus, has been kidnapped….”
Pearl wrinkled her brow and scrunched up her rosebud mouth as she considered these words. “And by whom has he been taken?” she asked. She had forgotten entirely she was engaged to be married. Her complexion darkened at the memory of Lord Petrus. “Are you sure he has been removed against his will?” she added.
The men in the room stared at her, mouths agape. Her father cleared his throat. “The good Duke of Abemarle reports that a beautiful but evil faery named Strega Malefica, has absconded with the boy,” the king explained.
“By Hecate, old friend, ‘strega’ and ‘malefica’ both? They mean the same thing.”
“All the better to emphasize her evil … old friend.”
“You can be such a c….”
“Oh! My! You are not being very nice at all. Truce, remember?
Princess Pearl recalled Lord Petrus, and how often he was either drunk or raping servant girls. But he was a very handsome youth, and could be quite entertaining. She suspected it had not been hard for Strega Malefica to lure him into her clutches. “I shall go rescue him,” she announced to the assembled men. “I will take only my page Shirley with me.”
When the Duke of Abemarle started to object, the king silenced him with one raised hand. “My daughter is the fiercest, most clever knight in the kingdom,” he said.
Princess Pearl bowed and immediately left for her knightly quarters on the first floor, where her armor and weapons were posed in the ready.
“Do you have to keep interrupting?”
“You are not making this any easier….”
“Is the weaving and warping not hard enough, we have to freeze the glamour with every urge you have to speak? No wonder you live alone, you cannot stop your tongue from wagging.”
“I live alone in all places at once, I live alone in service to the Maid and the Matron….”
“Spare me, please … can we continue?…”
In a short time, with Shirley’s help, Pearl was arrayed and astride her destrier, her weapons secured in scabbard and quiver. Shirley sat wrapped in a gray cloak atop her palfrey. They rode out in the afternoon, heading south, as this was known to be the general direction where one could find Strega Malefica’s abode.
On the first night, they dismounted and camped beside a small stream. On the next day, they asked peasants working in the fields, had any of them heard of Malefica. These turned pale, crossed themselves, and muttered prayers to god, but told them nothing. On the third day, Princess Pearl became impatient. “I’ll ask the birds,” she said to Shirley. This was one of Pearl’s talents, the ability to speak to creatures of the air.
“That is one of your powers, you cheat. The Princess would not be able to….”
I am her, and I say she can!”
“What are you two old faeries doing now? Can we get back to the story, please?”
“Shirley, Shirley … mmph … ha!”
“Pay her no mind, dear. She is, who she is. You are back on the palfrey….”
Princess Pearl and Shirley rode on, until a crow appeared on the road in front of them. “Dark wing,” Pearl asked, in a way that the bird understood, “can you tell me where we might find the lands of Strega Malefica?”
“Sorry, Princess, for I cannot,” answered the crow, and flapped away.
They entered a forest, and could hear twitters high in the trees. “Finches, sparrows, thrushes, larks — do any of you know the way to Strega Malefica’s castle?” Pearl asked, looking above her as they wound among the ferns and dark, thick trunks.
“We are sorry, Lady Princess, “but we cannot tell you,” came the reply in a flurry of warbling harmonies.
“This is boring.”
“Shut up, would you?”
“The way is south, south, past the Twilight Hills and over Howling Heath. There, I am telling you….”
“Oh for the Goddess’ sake, the lowly squirrel tells her the way, is that sufficient?”
“So she can converse with all animals now?”
The princess and her loyal page were grateful to the squirrel for daring to reveal the way to the evil faery’s lands. Princess Pearl promised him, he would be rewarded for his courage, but he jumped up and down and rolled in the debris of the forest floor, and chattered, “Acorns, acorns, so many acorns. They will not grow into big oaks because I eat them.” And he leaped and gamboled and did daring dance moves.
“I do not think it was courage that moved him to help us,” Shirley said. “I think he may be insane.”
The princess and her page eventually traversed Howling Heath, and camped behind a mound of ancient stones. “We will cross the river into Malefica’s domain at dawn,” Pearl announced.
As the world turned gray, and a cold breeze signaled the impending first pink light on the eastern horizon, Pearl and Shirley resumed their journey. They reached a weathered, rickety bridge under which the water surged and rushed loudly over green and black rocks. In the middle of the bridge, a hazy figure suddenly appeared and screeched, “Stay!” The form coalesced into something that resembled a bent and cowled old hag.
“Ha ha ha…”
“Oh, you wait….”
Princess Pearl lowered her visor and clasped the hilt of her sword that was still sheathed beside her. “We seek the powerful and magnificent Strega Malefica,” she intoned. “Stand aside, so we may cross.”
In an instant, the hunched old woman seemed to lengthen and straighten, growing taller and younger. She threw off her cowl and radiated a dazzling gold. Her many braids of yellow hair woven through with onyx, horn, and jade, gleamed and flew in all directions on an invisible wind. Her dark gown with the strapless bodice was tight around the waist, the skirt flowing and writhing in ruffles and folds around her feet. The fabric appeared to glisten both black and green at once, like a snake’s skin. “I am she, Strega Malefica, whom you seek!” she said, her voice melodious and chilling at once. She turned briefly and waved one outstretched hand behind her. “And that is my home.”
Pearl and Shirley stared in wonder as what had been an empty vista of early-morning mist and ghostly trees suddenly became an imposing structure, completely black in color, that filled their sight. “Oh my,” said the princess. “That is just a jumble, an architectural nightmare. You have no proportion … there are turrets on the left that are not balanced by any structure on the right that will carry the weight….”
“What?” the evil faery said.
“Is that made of obsidian?” Shirley the page asked. “I think it is quite lovely. All black and shiny and translucent but impossible to penetrate with cannon or fire….”
“Page, you were not asked to speak….” Pearl started.
“What?” Malefica said again, her tone sharp with impatience. “You are an idiot, ‘Princess Pearl,’” she said under her breath.
“You ruin things every time.”
“I repeat, you are an idiot.”
“Excuse me for not being the earth-mother glorious daughter of Diana who has less of a sense of humor than a snail….”
Pearl felt her anger rising. She took a threatening posture in her saddle. “We are here to rescue Lord Petrus, son of the Duke of Ademarle, and my betrothed,” she announced. “You will release him at once.”
Malefica began turning, completing delicate pirouettes on the narrow confines of the planked bridge. “Do you really want him back”? she asked, almost singing. The green-black masses of iridescent fabric swirled and wrapped her bare legs clockwise, then unwrapped and spun back around counter-clockwise as she changed direction.
“Be careful,” Shirley warned, “she is weaving a spell….”
Princess Pearl tilted her head to the side, then raised her visor. “You know, this is ridiculous. Where is the dragon? Where are your knights? I’m supposed to do battle and rescue Petrus and give him a kiss, and….”
“You can fight me,” Malefica said, pausing in her dance, and sporting a very wide and evil-looking grin.
“Oh, oh, I would just love to, you….” Pearl leaped from her saddle and landed with a hollow clank. She drew her sword.
“By the goddess, you two, it is impossible to complete a single,…” Shirley started, but then noticed a man stumbling out of the massive front entrance of the obsidian keep. “Look, is that Petrus?” She pointed.
Malefica threw out her arms and made a sour face. She sighed. “Be my guest,” she said. “Rescue him.” She lowered into an elaborate curtsy and then came upright and stepped aside.
Pearl pressed up against her, the metal armor pushing against the strega’s exaggerated breasts. “I was supposed to fight a dragon and a knight,” she hissed.
“I am tired of this,” Malefica said. She snapped her fingers and the approaching Lord Petrus froze.
“Did you not gather your own court and followers? Did you not? Send out your knights immediately. I wish to slaughter them!”
“I grow weary of your story,” Malefica responded, and raised her chin as she stroked her own long, white neck. “Let us put them back where we found them.”
“You are impossible,” the dark faery said. “We have woven our web of glamour over an entire section of East Anglia. I took great care with my end. You are a lazy and slovenly whore, as usual! I consider this to be my victory!”
“Both of you, I am going to go back to my crypt in one instant if you do not stop fighting….”
The faery of light and the dark faery focused on the princess at once, as they sat side by side before their loom, their features shimmering in the magical illumination, morphing from ancient hag to exquisite woman to something in between
“Besides,” she continued as she came to her feet, “you did not give Shirely anything interesting to do, or say. The final confrontation should have been Shirley joining in battle, bopping one of Malefica’s men on the head with a clanging sound, just as he is about to seize Petrus, who cowers helplessly while….”
“Petrus is without merit in any case,” the good faery interrupted. “You could not find any better?”
The dark faery, her black hair sticking out like a mane, glared at her other. “He was the best I could produce from the 14th Century,” she said.
The good faery slammed her shuttle onto the ground. “Well, I am done.”
“I hate you sometimes,” the dark faery said, her eyes like fire in the glow of luminescent tendrils that lifted from the ground around her. She remained seated for a moment more, then likewise set her shuttle aside, and came to stand, stretching and arching her back. “But it is true, no one acts the evil witch better than I. You were pathetic. You did not even try.”
The good faery smiled at the princess. “Good night, my dear. Thank you for the game. I am afraid you must go back to sleep in your crystal coffin, now.”
She nodded and gathered her white shroud around her. “Please do not let it be Petrus who awakens me.”
The dark faery tugged at her brown woolen shift and pulled the ends of her crocheted shawl tightly around her. “No worries on that score, my dear. You have another one-hundred and sixty-seven years of slumber.” She paused as she saw her golden-haired other gather her bright and darting orbs as she prepared to leave the clearing. “Another time, another place, sister,” she called. “But you had better bring your A-game when next we meet.”